Cubs

State of the Cubs: Bullpen

State of the Cubs: Bullpen

As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team each week by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the second installment on the bullpen.

Two years in a row, the Cubs bullpen faded at the most crucial point in the season. Much of that was due to overuse earlier in the season — something they hope to address by letting their starters go deeper into games in the first few months of 2019.

But 2018's fade was more complicated than that. Sure, there was overuse (Steve Cishek), but there were also injuries (Brandon Morrow, Pedro Strop) and the mixture of physical, mental and mechanical issues that led to Carl Edwards Jr.'s collapse. By the time the National League Wild-Card Game rolled into Wrigley Field, the bullpen consisted of Strop pitching through "severe pain," Jesse Chavez, Cishek coming off back-to-back-to-back appearances and then a slew of starting pitchers.

Needless to say, that's not how the Cubs drew it up and it's why the bullpen is a major area of focus for Theo Epstein's front office this winter.

Here's how the bullpen looks at the moment:

Depth chart

1. Brandon Morrow
2. Pedro Strop
3. Carl Edwards Jr.
4. Steve Cishek
5. Mike Montgomery
6. Brandon Kintzler
7. Alec Mills
8. Randy Rosario
9. Brian Duensing
10. Justin Hancock
11. Tyler Chatwood?
12. Allen Webster
13. Dillon Maples
14. James Norwood
15. Jerry Vasto

The Cubs have more than $30 million committed to this bullpen, and that's not including the arbitration raises for Montgomery and Edwards (which is estimated at a combined $4.4 million). If Chatwood actually makes a move to the bullpen due to a crowded rotation, that number adds another $12.5 million.

The Cubs are in a tough spot financially and have resources tied up in Kintzler ($5 million) and Duensing ($3.5 million) — a pair of veterans coming off down 2018 seasons but have a long track record of success and could be prime bounceback candidates in 2019 (which would certainly bode well for the Cubs). 

Strop remains one of the greatest relief pitchers in Cubs history and picking up his $6.25 million option was a no-brainer. Cishek was the MVP of the bullpen (and possibly the entire pitching staff) before fading down the stretch and he should again be a reliable option with a more realistic workload in 2019.

Morrow and Edwards are the X-factors, but for different reasons. 

Morrow is a legitimate stud in any relief role and his attacking style of pitching sets a great example for Edwards and others. When he was serving as closer, the Cubs bullpen ranked as the best in baseball, allowing Maddon a plethora of options for the middle innings to bridge the gap from starting pitchers to Morrow. 

Edwards possesses some of the best pure stuff (or "shit" as Morrow puts it) of any reliever in baseball, but he also has work to do on the mechanical and mental side of the game to ensure the late-season collapses become a thing of the past. Things got so bad for Edwards in 2018, he wasn't even active for the Wild-Card game — the reason cited was a forearm issue, but he also struggled the entire month of September (12 walks, 5.14 ERA in 7 innings). 

If the Cubs could somehow harness Edwards' incredible natural ability for a full season, it would change the entire complexion of the bullpen all year, but especially in September and October. 

What's next?

Even if Edwards, Kintzler and Duensing find their way back into Joe Maddon's circle of trust, the Cubs have a clear need for another high-leverage reliever or two this winter.

With the dearth of quality left-handed options (remember: Montgomery may wind up in the rotation at some point again), it would be a natural fit to see the Cubs add another southpaw with some closing experience, but GM Jed Hoyer said earlier this month he's more worried about quality than which arm they throw with.

"Certainly [a lefty] is ideal," Hoyer said at the GM Meetings. "I'd probably more focus on good relievers than handedness, honestly. The key is not only to have a good bullpen all year, you gotta have that bullpen pitching well down the stretch. Part of that, I think, is having the depth to not overuse guys. So that's certainly a focus for us. 

"We have a good rotation, our bullpen performed exceptionally well last year — it really did. But we have to make sure it does that again by adding enough depth or get to that point in the season. I'm actually impressed our bullpen held up as well as it did given our short starts early in the season that they actually held up pretty well. But we have to be aware of the impact that can have on us next year."

The bottom line

There's no shortage of reliable relievers available on the free agent — from Craig Kimbrel to Andrew Miller to Cody Allen to Zach Britton. It's possible the Cubs would want to outbid other teams for the services of Miller or Britton but Epstein historically shies away from shelling out big money for closers, so don't expect them to be among the top suitors for Kimbrel. Even Morrow's deal was only $21 million guaranteed over two years.

It's more likely we'll see the Cubs make some smaller moves in free agency (maybe bringing back Jesse Chavez?) and potentially acquire an impact reliever via trade (a la Wade Davis for Jorge Soler two years back).

Either way, the Cubs will add another guy who can pitch in the late innings (possibly even at closer) and probably another lefty or two to serve as depth and competition with Duensing/Rosario/Vasto.

It would help if the Cubs had potential impact relievers coming up through the farm system, but they can't count on that given they've had zero luck in that area over the past few years.

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Cubs' Jason Heyward on racial injustice: 'It feels like a broken record'

Cubs' Jason Heyward on racial injustice: 'It feels like a broken record'

Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward joined ESPN 1000’s “Waddle & Silvy” on Monday for a candid conversation on the unrest and tensions across the country following the death of George Floyd at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin.

“It feels like a broken record and where we’re watching a rerun,” Heyward told Marc Silverman and Tom Waddle. “I feel like these things continue to happen over and over and over again and you have people continuously and helplessly trying to find a solution.”

Heyward, who grew up in McDonough, Ga. described how his father discussed racial injustice with him and his brother at a young age.

RELATED: Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts: 'We all need to step up to end' racial injustice

“He didn’t do that just to do it, that wasn’t something he was proud of having to do and having to explain,” he said. “That was something from experience that he could take and know that he went to one of the first integrated schools in South Carolina, integrated movie theaters, having separate bathrooms — things like that.”

Those conversations continued as Heyward committed to pursuing a professional baseball career while in high school, he said. As he was preparing to play for a travel team in East Cobb, Ga., his father told him of what he may face, such as being called the N word and people talking bad about his family.

Heyward noted how as a minor leaguer in the Braves farm system, he faced racism playing games in Savannah, Ga. — then home to a Mets affiliate. Silverman mentioned the racist messages Heyward received on Twitter after leaving the Cardinals in free agency to join the Cubs. Last year, MLB investigated racist messages sent to former Cub Carl Edwards Jr. on social media.

Although he said he experiences less of that today in the big leagues, Heyward added it still happens and that’s the message that needs to be shared. He described how the start to reaching a solution is people continuing to discuss racial injustice and being willing to listen and be aware of others’ concerns.

"While everyone has different views and different concerns and every ethnicity, race, gender, all these things — people have their own struggles, man," he said. "But I think at the end of the day, right now we’re seeing a lot of conversation about this that we’ve seen before but I think it’s being spread a little bit faster through social media, through LeBron James, through the rest of the NBA, through other athletes, through people that are starting to look around and say ‘I’m not African American, I’m not black but this affects me too.

"'This affects my kids, this affects them going to school, this affects my friends and their families and their generation.' So, I feel like everyone is a little bit more woke right now, regardless of how ugly things have been, how hard things have been on the people that are being affected most."

Floyd's death sparked week-long protests across the country that became violent. Heyward talked about looking into the future and what happens next as he sees some of the nation's more angry responses.

"I see confusion. I see anger, I see hatred, and these are all things people deal with as human beings on a daily basis. You have some people going out there with a certain message that they’re gonna put out. You have other people going out there and following and thinking they’re doing it for the right thing, but they don’t exactly understand it."

Heyward sees both sides of the issue, expressing sympathy for the difficult job and "judgements" police face.

"To me, that’s the trickle-down effect and what sucks is there are a lot of good cops, there are a lot of great cops," he said. "I’m friends with some — close family friends — to where they’re gonna take a lot of heat for this as well."

The bottomline is this issue isn't new for the life many Americans live on a daily basis.

"When you have hatred, when you have anger, when you have people that dealt with this 40 years ago, when you have people that dealt with this 20 years ago, people that dealt with it 10 years ago, people for the first time dealing with it now, you got people at all different walks of life who have different emotions about it and different thoughts on how to handle it.

"Everyone's not gonna have the same opinion, everyone's not gonna agree. But having the conversations, putting it out there and being aware of how we're all thinking as different individuals is a huge step in the right direction."

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How deferrals in MLBPA counterproposal could provide Cubs financial relief

How deferrals in MLBPA counterproposal could provide Cubs financial relief

The Ricketts family, more than any other owners in the NL Central, should be intrigued by the MLB Players Association’s economic counterproposal.

Overall, the proposal is the second step in a fiery tango, in which the players association and owners begin on opposite sides of the room and hopefully end up somewhere in the middle. The players’ response, which the union reportedly delivered to the league on Sunday, will almost definitely not be adopted in whole. But, in the midst of both sides’ hard-lining, the players extended the option to defer some player salaries if the postseason is cancelled.

As one of the top five spenders in MLB, the Cubs would be one of the teams most affected by that aspect of the proposal.

The prospect of losing the playoffs to a second wave of COVID-19 is the stuff of baseball owners’ nightmares. The postseason supplies especially lucrative TV deals, which become especially important as the league braces for a massive loss of revenue this year.

The MLBPA counterproposal addressed that fear by including deferrals, according to multiple reports. Contracts calling for salaries of $10 million or more (before proration) could be deferred, with interest. High-payroll teams could enjoy up to $7 million each in relief, The Athletic reported.

The Cubs have 10 players poised to make at least $10 million before their salaries are prorated this year, per spotrac.com.

– Jason Heyward, $23.5 million

– Yu Darvish, $22 million

– Jon Lester, $20 million

– Kris Bryant, $18.6 million

– Anthony Rizzo, $16.5 million

– Craig Kimbrel, $16 million

– Tyler Chatwood, $13 million

– Kyle Hendricks, $12 million

– Jose Quintana, $10.5 million

– Javier Baez, $10 million

That’s the most in the league. Twice as many as the White Sox. In the NL Central, the Cardinals (8) are the closest to catching the Cubs, followed by the Reds (5). On the other end of the spectrum, the Pirates don’t have any players with $10 million salaries.

There is, however, a Catch-22. According to chairman Tom Ricketts, 70 percent of the Cubs’ revenue comes from gameday operations. With such a high payroll, and fans banned from attending games for the foreseeable future, the Cubs organization is poised to take an especially large financial hit.

Still, Ricketts said on CNBC last week, “We’d definitely like to see baseball back." 

A presentation from the commissioner’s office to the players association, obtained by the Associated Press, projected $199 million in local losses for the Cubs alone, before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. That estimate was based on an 82-game season without fans and with players taking prorated salaries.

If that number is accurate – the players continue to call on owners to open their books – $7 million wouldn’t be much relief in the face of a cancelled postseason. And, as mentioned before, it would come with interest. But by mentioning deferrals in a counterproposal, the MLBPA introduced an area for potential compromise.

The players quickly dismissed the league’s sliding scale proposal, which could reportedly pay the highest-paid players merely 20-30 percent of their salaries. But deferrals could help ease owners’ financial challenges this season without axing players earnings so drastically.